Back in October, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) in front of a live audience at the 20th Austin Film Festival & Conference. During our hour-long conversation, Nichols generously shared many details of his writing and directing processes, including the origins of his characters, the progression of his career as a storyteller, the importance of a story's setting and a character's profession, and the deliberate pacing of his films, plus much more. Thanks to the Austin Film Festival, we present this conversation with Jeff Nichols in two parts, the first of four AFF panel discussions we will be sharing over the coming weeks.
These are excerpts from a longer conversation with Jeff Nichols at the Austin Film Festival, taken from the transcript of the live event. Because of the length of the excerpts, we have split it into two parts, so be sure to check back with NFS for Part Two. Many thanks to AFF Conference Director Erin Hallagan for providing this transcript and for her entire team that makes the Conference at AFF a must-attend event for screenwriters. You can buy your badges now for AFF 2014 at discounted prices, so don't wait!
[Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen Jeff Nichols' films, you should. This conversation covers all three of his feature films in detail and reveals key plot points from each film.]
CB: In a recent interview, you said the origin of your stories comes from the characters, and so my question to you to start this off is, where do your characters come from?
Jeff Nichols: That’s a big question. With Shotgun Stories, I wanted to deal with a relationship between brothers. I also wanted to deal with revenge. And those are kind of lofty things. On a more tangible level, I’ve got things that I think will happen in the film. A feud between two sets of half brothers, that’s something I can really start to build things out of. And once I have those things working in my head, the characters just start to come to me. You just need people to play out those scenarios.
When it came to Mud, I was just struck with the idea of a man hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi river. That just seemed like a good idea for a movie. So of course, I needed the man. But I quickly began to think this isn’t enough. I don’t just want to be with this guy on an island. In fact, at the time I originally came up with the idea, a girl had broken up with me in college and I was devastated and heartbroken and was thinking a lot about love and first love and all these other things. It came to me that I needed to make a film about first love. Again, that was that kind of a lofty topic. So then this boy Ellis came to mind, and wouldn’t it be more interesting if this boy discovered this man, isn’t that a great point of view for this story? All of a sudden, a getaway story about a man hiding out on an island became a coming-of-age story about first love. It’s all just kind of organic, to use an overused term, but you just start crafting the stories and the people come to you.
CB: I feel like the question being asked over and over again in your films is: what does it mean to be a man? Is that a conscious choice you make when you are writing these stories?
JN: It’s not a conscious choice in that I sit down and say, “The world needs another interpretation of white men.” But you know, these are very personal stories for me, and it is really what I am dealing with. I happen to be a guy from the south, and a lot of my characters are guys from the south, dealing with these things -- about who they are, and it certainly is what it means to be a man, but I think really it’s like what it means to be a good person, a functional human and adult. I think you can apply those things across the sexes. That being said, I read things, I’m not oblivious to the concepts here.
Take Shelter was a direct challenge to myself after Shotgun Stories, which was über-masculine, by choice, to create a story about the relationship of brothers. So by definition, that’s going to be a masculine story. But I remember thinking and telling my then-fianceé, "I wonder if I can write a female character that is strong, interesting and dynamic." That is where Jessica Chastain’s character came out of Take Shelter. I mean, I certainly am open to the argument of her being part of this cult of domesticity. She is a housewife and all this other stuff. But I grew up and my mom was a housewife and I don’t look down on that at all. That was just a part of my life. I thought that she was one of the strongest people in my life. That seemed an appropriate counter to Curtis. That film for me is much less about only masculinity. It’s about marriage. That for me is a film that kind of balances those two things.
The funny thing about Mud coming on the heels of those other two films is that I’d been thinking about Mud since college. I just dragged all my young stupid thoughts through a decade into Mud, so it is not a reaction to my development as an artist or writer or storyteller, whatever we want to call it. It was this thing that I had been carrying with me forever. And it also just happened to be an examination of male relationships. So it’s just really close to me. Here I am saying all this, and my next film is very much about the relationship I have with my son. So that will fall into that column as well, almost by default.
CB: What have you learned from directing your films that has then translated into your future writing?
JN: I think brevity is one. I don’t know if that is a result of getting older and having a little bit more confidence in the eventual execution of something. In Mud, I just slaved over that script. I poured every detail into it. The creaking of the ropes tied from the tops of the trees to the top of the houseboat. I mean, it is in the script. I didn’t want anyone to say that they didn’t see it -- or didn’t understand it. And now, with [the upcoming] Midnight Special, I am trying something else. The script for Mud, the first draft, was like 165 pages long. It was an unacceptable length. We got it down, I changed the margins, we did everything. We got it down to 130 before we started shooting. Still, it was kind of untenable. You know, with Midnight Special, I decided I want this to be a propulsive film. It’s a chase film from west Texas to Florida. I never want it to stop. I want it to keep going. It is almost like in that script, there is no time for that kind of detail. I don’t want it, and I don’t need it. We are focusing on something else.
CB: What does Midnight Special look like on the page? Does it literally look different on the page because you are trying to create a propulsive story?
JN: Yeah, it does. I keep everything. I got a dumb note from a kid in college who was reading one of my scripts. And I used to write big paragraphs of action. This kid tells me, “Man, nobody wants to read that shit. Break that up, make that like two or three sentences, you know?” And so when you read my scripts, you will never get bogged down by a big long paragraph. I might break that up and turn that into a whole page, but I think the bigger point there isn’t about spacing. It is more about moving your reader through the story visually on the page. So every line, other than descriptions for clothes and possibly the look of a house or a location, which since Mud, I try to be very brief with, everything else is a shot in the movie.
I use no camera direction. Camera direction bugs the hell out of me. It’s because it takes me out of the script when I read it. People send me scripts that they want me to direct, and the script says, “We move in and the camera does this.” You don’t know what the camera is going to do. Just tell me what I am looking at. That will get me there much faster than you trying to tell me what the movie is going to look like. I understand that comes from a writer knowing they are not going to direct, wanting to direct from the page. For me, a line of description, a line of action can give you all the point of view that you need. “He looks through the back of the van to see ‘XYZ’ burning in the distance.” From that description, you already know where the camera is going to be, and what it is going to be pointing at, and what it is seeing, and how it is moving.
I think it’s harder to write this way. It is very easy to say that we move with him through the parking lot. That means nothing to me. You know, they move through the parking lot. I assume we are going to go with them if that’s what you are talking to me about in the script. So yeah, on the page, Midnight Special, you just kinda fly through it. That was the intention. I just never wanted you to stop. I wanted you to blow through the 92 pages.
An earlier version of this post mistakenly contained the entire transcript of my conversation with Jeff. We have since excerpted parts of the transcript. A more complete version of the conversation will be available later in the year from Austin Film Festival's On Story.
Tomorrow, we will bring you Part Two of our in-depth conversation with Jeff Nichols from the 20th Austin Film Festival & Conference. NFS would like to thank to Jeff Nichols and Austin Film Festival for their generosity for this conversation.
Where do you discover the characters for your stories? Have your experiences with directing influenced your own writing? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.